All posts in “Politics”

Pro-Trump social media duo accuses Facebook of anti-conservative censorship

Following up on a recurring thread from Mark Zuckerberg’s congressional appearance earlier this month, the House held a hearing today on perceived bias against conservatives on Facebook and other social platforms. The hearing, ostensibly about “how social media companies filter content on their platforms,” focused on the anecdotal accounts of social media stars Diamond and Silk (Lynnette Hardaway and Rochelle Richardson), a pro-Trump viral web duo that rose to prominence during Trump’s presidential campaign.

“Facebook used one mechanism at a time to diminish reach by restricting our page so that our 1.2 million followers would not see our content, thus silencing our conservative voices,” Diamond and Silk said in their testimony.

“It’s not fair for these Giant Techs [sic] like Facebook and YouTube get to pull the rug from underneath our platform and our feet and put their foot on our neck to silence our voices; it’s not fair for them to put a strong hold on our finances.”

During the course of their testimony, Diamond and Silk repeated their unfounded assertions that Facebook targeted their content as a deliberate act of political censorship.

What followed was mostly a partisan back-and-forth. Republicans who supported the hearing’s mission asked the duo to elaborate on their claims and Democrats pointed out their lack of substantiating evidence and their willingness to denounce documented facts as “fake news.”

Controversially, they also denied that they had accepted payment from the Trump campaign, in spite of public evidence to the contrary. On November 22, 2016, the pair received $1,274.94 for “field consulting,” as documented by the FEC.

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Earlier in April, Zuckerberg faced a question about the pair’s Facebook page from Republican Rep. Joe Barton:

Why is Facebook censoring conservative bloggers such as Diamond and Silk? Facebook called them “unsafe” to the community. That is ludicrous. They hold conservative views. That isn’t unsafe.

At the time, Zuckerberg replied that the perceived censorship was an “enforcement error” and had been in contact with Diamond and Silk to reverse its mistake. Senator Ted Cruz also asked Zuckerberg about what he deemed a “pervasive pattern of bias and political censorship” against conservative voices on the platform.

Today’s hearing, which California Rep. Ted Lieu dismissed as “stupid and ridiculous,” was little more than an exercise in idle hyper-partisanship, but it’s notable for a few reasons. For one, Diamond and Silk are two high-profile creators who managed to take their monetization grievances with tech companies, however misguided, all the way to Capitol Hill. Beyond that, and the day’s strange role-reversal of regulatory stances, the hearing was the natural escalation of censorship claims made by some Republicans during the Zuckerberg hearings. Remarkably, those accusations only comprised a sliver of the two days’ worth of testimony; in a rare display of bipartisanship, Democrats and Republicans mostly cooperated in grilling the Facebook CEO on his company’s myriad failures.

Congressional hearing or not, the truth of Facebook’s platform screw-ups is far more universal than political claims on the right or left might suggest. As Zuckerberg’s testimony made clear, Facebook’s moderation tools don’t exactly work as intended and the company doesn’t even really know the half of it. Facebook users have been manipulating the platform’s content reporting tools for years, and unfortunately that phenomenon coupled with Facebook’s algorithmic and moderation blind spots punishes voices on both sides of the U.S. political spectrum — and everyone in between.

Facebook’s new authorization process for political ads goes live in the US

Earlier this month — and before Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testified before Congress — the company announced a series of changes to how it would handle political advertisements running on its platform in the future. It had said that people who wanted to buy a political ad — including ads about political “issues” — would have to reveal their identities and location and be verified before the ads could run. Information about the advertiser would also display to Facebook users.

Today, Facebook is announcing the authorization process for U.S. political ads is live.

Facebook had first said in October that political advertisers would have to verify their identity and location for election-related ads. But in April, it expanded that requirement to include any “issue ads” — meaning those on political topics being debated across the country, not just those tied to an election.

Facebook said it would work with third parties to identify the issues. These ads would then be labeled as “Political Ads,” and display the “paid for by” information to end users.

According to today’s announcement, Facebook will now begin to verify the identity and the residential mailing address of advertisers who want to run political ads. Those advertisers will also have to disclose who’s paying for the ads as part of this authorization process.

This verification process is currently only open in the U.S. and will require Page admins and ad account admins to submit their government-issued ID to Facebook, along with their residential mailing address.

The government ID can either be a U.S. passport or U.S. driver’s license, a FAQ explains. Facebook will also ask for the last four digits of admins’ Social Security Number. The photo ID will then be approved or denied in a matter of minutes, though anyone declined based on the quality of the uploaded images won’t be prevented from trying again.

The address, however, will be verified by mailing a letter with a unique access code that only the admin’s Facebook account can use. The letter may take up to 10 days to arrive, Facebook notes.

Along with the verification portion, Page admins will also have to fill in who paid for the ad in the “disclaimer” section. This has to include the organization(s) or person’s name(s) who funded it.

This information will also be reviewed prior to approval, but Facebook isn’t going to fact check this field, it seems.

Instead, the company simply says: “We’ll review each disclaimer to make sure it adheres to our advertising policies. You can edit your disclaimers at any time, but after each edit, your disclaimer will need to be reviewed again, so it won’t be immediately available to use.”

The FAQ later states that disclaimers must comply with “any applicable law,” but again says that Facebook only reviews them against its ad policies.

“It’s your responsibility as the advertiser to independently assess and ensure that your ads are in compliance with all applicable election and advertising laws and regulations,” the documentation reads.

Along with the launch of the new authorization procedures, Facebook has released a Blueprint training course to guide advertisers through the steps required, and has published an FAQ to answer advertisers’ questions.

Of course, these procedures will only net the more scrupulous advertisers willing to play by the rules. That’s why Facebook had said before that it plans to use AI technology to help sniff out those advertisers who should have submitted to verification, but did not. The company is also asking people to report suspicious ads using the “Report Ad” button.

Facebook has been under heavy scrutiny because of how its platform was corrupted by Russian trolls on a mission to sway the 2016 election. The Justice Department charged 13 Russians and three companies with election interference earlier this year, and Facebook has removed hundreds of accounts associated with disinformation campaigns.

While tougher rules around ads may help, they alone won’t solve the problem.

It’s likely that those determined to skirt the rules will find their own workarounds. Plus, ads are only one of many issues in terms of those who want to use Facebook for propaganda and misinformation. On other fronts, Facebook is dealing with fake news — including everything from biased stories to those that are outright lies, intending to influence public opinion. And of course there’s the Cambridge Analytica scandal, which led to intense questioning of Facebook’s data privacy practices in the wake of revelations that millions of Facebook users had their information improperly accessed.

Facebook says the political ads authorization process is gradually rolling out, so it may not be available to all advertisers at this time. Currently, users can only set up and manage authorizations from a desktop computer from the Authorizations tab in a Facebook Page’s Settings.

Higher Ground Labs backs 13 startups to help Democrats win in 2018 and beyond

With 2018 midterms around the corner, the Democrats are looking for their answer to Cambridge Analytica, the Robert Mercer-backed political data firm that either won the 2016 election or tricked everyone into believing that it did, depending on who’s talking.

To that end, a prominent left-leaning accelerator is out with a new graduating class, just in time to gear up for November. Higher Ground Labs seeks to “supercharge” political startups with progressive causes at heart. The incubator and accelerator’s main cause is notching Democratic wins, from local to federal elections.

The group just announced a class of 13 politics-minded companies offering “innovative solutions” to get Democrats elected. The 13 new companies join 10 companies from Higher Ground’s 2017 class. The chosen startups will each receive around $100,000 each in seed funding, an invitation to Higher Ground’s accelerator bootcamp and proximity to the group’s star-studded advisory board, which boasts a former COO of the Obama Foundation, a former Clinton campaign CTO and current Strava chief product officer, a former FCC chairman, the guys at Crooked Media and the chief technology officer of the DNC, among many other high-profile names. The political accelerator’s investor list features notable names like LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman and Silicon Valley super angel investor Ron Conway.

“Last year, Higher Ground Labs invested in companies and entrepreneurs that provided game-changing technologies in Virginia’s state elections and the Alabama Senate race,” said Ron Klain, chair of the Higher Ground board and former White House aide. “Now, we are more than doubling the size of our portfolio, and will be backing two dozen companies that aim to have a major impact on the 2018 election, up and down the ballot.”

The 2018 class startups include:

5 Calls, an affordable phone-banking platform for everything from school board elections to federal campaigns.

Avalanche, a cognitive science-driven communications company.

CallTime, which aggregates data into comprehensive donor profiles using AI to optimize donor outreach.

Change Research, quick, accurate public opinion polling that cuts costs by as much as 90 percent.

Civic Eagle, a SaaS platform for policy advocacy campaigns.

Factba.se, a “transparency engine” that collects “every word spoken” by a political opponent to allow for discrepancies and shifts to be identified quickly.

GiveMini, a micro-donation tool that lets donors round up to the nearest dollar.

GrowProgress, a tool that predicts audience personality for message targeting.

Humanize, “a platform that democratizes the tools of advertising” to give regular people access to ad strategies that would normally be price prohibitive.

New Mode, engagement tools that highlight supporters’ stories.

Same Side, a platform to activate supporters who are “already doing cool things” in music, art and culture.

Swayable, a data science platform that enables rapid-response digital campaigns and examines “which kinds of people respond to which content.”

Voter Protection Partners, a group that works with campaigns to “manage voter protection teams and track, analyze, and respond to voting incidents and election administration problems.”

Projects like Higher Ground are fueling the kind of political technology operations that Democrats hope can translate into wins in 2018 and beyond. While national post-mortems on the 2016 election remain obsessed with the right’s deep pocketed big data mythos, plenty of folks in tech’s left-leaning epicenters believe that Democrats can do better with the right tools.

Sierra Leone just ran the first blockchain-based election

The citizens of Sierra Leone went to the polls on March 7 but this time something was different: the country recorded votes at 70% of the polling to the blockchain using a technology that is the first of its kind in actual practice.

The tech, created by Leonardo Gammar of Agora, anonymously stored votes in an immutable ledger, thereby offering instant access to the election results.

“Anonymized votes/ballots are being recorded on Agora’s blockchain, which will be publicly available for any interested party to review, count and validate,” said Gammar. “This is the first time a government election is using blockchain technology.”

“Sierra Leone wishes to create an environment of trust with the voters in a contentious election, especially looking at how the election will be publicly viewed post-election. By using blockchain as a means to immutably record ballots and results, the country hopes to create legitimacy around the election and reduce fall-out from opposition parties,” he said.

Why is this interesting? While this is little more than a proof of concept – it is not a complete voting record but instead captured a seemingly acceptable plurality of votes – it’s fascinating to see the technology be implemented in Sierra Leone, a country of about 7.4 million people. The goal ultimately is to reduce voting costs by cutting out paper ballots as well as reducing corruption in the voting process.

Gammar, for his part, sees the value of a decentralizes system.

“We’re the only company in the world that has built a fully-functional blockchain voting platform. Other electronic voting machines are ‘block boxes’ that have been increasingly shown to be vulnerable to security attacks. For that reason, many US states and foreign nations have been moving back to paper,” he said. “If you believe that most countries will use some form of digital voting 50 years from now, then blockchain is the only technology that has been created which can provide an end-to-end verifiable and fully-transparent voting solution for this future.”

One election in one country isn’t a movement – yet. However, Gammar and his team plan on expanding their product to other African countries and, eventually, to the rest of the world.

As for the election it is still unclear who won and there will be a run-off election on March 27. The winner will succeed President Ernest Bai Koroma who has run the country for a full decade.

Chinese iCloud account privacy may be at risk once Apple complies with new laws

Image: yichuan cao/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Apple is preparing for a big change at the end of the month: Henceforth, iCloud data belonging to users based in China will have to be stored there, in the company’s new Chinese data center.

That means text message, emails, and other data stored in the cloud will be physically housed on Chinese soil. Importantly, it also means that the cryptographic keys required to unlock an iCloud account will live in China as well.

Previously, as Reuters points out, those keys had been stored in the United States. Whenever Chinese authorities have sought access to a user’s account in the past for one reason or another, they’d have to go through the processes set forth in the U.S. legal system.

Moving the keys to a data center in China means that authorities can seek access to iCloud accounts using the local legal system instead. This is a worry to human rights and privacy advocates, who fear what the country’s looser privacy restrictions and the broad powers held by local authorities might mean.

“Even very early in a criminal investigation, police have broad powers to collect evidence,” Jeremy Daum, an attorney and research fellow based in Beijing, told Reuters.  “[They are] authorized by internal police procedures rather than independent court review, and the public has an obligation to cooperate.”

China’s data privacy laws also offer little protection when the authorities in question are investigating certain criminal offenses, including some that many countries would define as political suppression. 

Two Chinese citizens were jailed as dissidents in 2002 for distributing pro-democracy writings and other materials. It was later discovered that the damning evidence had been provided to the Chinese government by Yahoo, prompting harsh criticism. The tech company later apologized and settled a lawsuit brought by the families of Chinese activists.

While plenty has changed in China since the events of 2002 — that was more than a decade before the country’s longtime ban on video game consoles finally lifted, for example — concerns remain. 

Some have criticized Apple’s decision, but the company contends it tried to keep this from happening. 

“While we advocated against iCloud being subject to these laws, we were ultimately unsuccessful,” a statement provided to Reuters reads. Apple claims that moving iCloud data and encryption keys to China is preferable to shutting down iCloud services there completely, a move that the company says would add to the risk of user security and privacy being compromised.

Apple maintains that it alone controls the encryption keys, regardless of the nation in which they’re based. Even its Chinese partner — the state-owned Guizhou, which helped to get the data center established — doesn’t have access.

Of course, that’s exactly what a company concerned with its own interests would say in a situation like this. Apple’s partnership with Guizhou is a necessity; without it, the U.S. company wouldn’t be able to store data in China under the new rules. That, in turn, could cut off Apple’s access to the large Chinese market of more than 1 billion potential customers.

Critics, meanwhile, feel that Apple caved too easily. New York Times writer and college professor Zeynep Tufekci, one such critic, articulated her feelings on the move in a pair of tweets.

Whatever you believe, the move is happening and it goes into effect on Feb. 28. 

An Apple support article makes clear that, as of Feb. 28, users in China will be required to accept a new terms of service agreement if they wish to continue using iCloud. The company told Reuters that more than 99.9 percent of the current users there have already done so.

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